What to answer when the interviewer says “Tell me about yourself”

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You’ve been nervously waiting in the reception area for the interview to start. You hear your name. You get up, shake the interviewer’s hand and follow them into the conference room. You sit down as you mentally go over all the questions you’ve practiced in the days leading up to the interview. The interviewer gestures to your résumé on the table in front of them and says “So, tell me about yourself.”

What do you say?

Personally, I’m not a fan of this question because it’s broad and vague. In my opinion, it’s setting the candidate up to fail because it’s much easier to answer this question poorly than it is to answer it well.

My aim in this article is to give you the guidelines for what the interviewer wants to hear. This will ensure that you are among the few candidates who answers this question well.

Common mistakes

The most common mistake people make is to share both personal and professional information. This approach could inadvertently back you into a corner before you’ve answered any questions about your ability to do the job.

The two main areas where candidates put themselves at a disadvantage are: 1) talking about their families and 2) talking about their problems.

Most parents are extremely proud of their children and with reason. Children are a wonderful gift and they have a remarkable impact on our lives. It’s hard to not talk about them! I would however caution against leading the interview with anything about your kids. Why? Because you’re opening the interview with a personal fact that could be perceived as a constraint. What the interviewer hears is that they can’t trust you’ll be there during crunch time due to a little one being sick or having to pick them up after daycare or school.

The same goes for any major life problem you could be facing such as a divorce, an ailing parent or health issues. While you’re talking about a reality that affects your daily life, the interviewer is hearing that they will need to accommodate you. If you have a court date or a doctor’s appointment, this will take precedence over the job and they will have to scramble to cover for your absence.

I want to underscore that I am not minimizing the impact of having young children or experiencing a major life event. What I am saying is don’t lead with this. Don’t let the first words out of your mouth be reasons why you won’t be available to do the job.

What does the interviewer want to hear?

The interviewers want to know about your career thus far. When an interviewer says “Tell me about yourself,” all candidates should have the same response: “I am someone who uses my skills and responsibilities to add value to my employers.” While you don’t explicitly use these words, you say it through talking about the following:

  • Your duties and responsibilities
  • Meeting and surpassing objectives
  • Your accomplishments
  • Special projects you’ve worked on
  • Services you’ve delivered for your internal or external clients
  • Promotions
  • Processes you’ve improved
  • Initiatives you’ve taken
  • Relationships you have in your industry
  • How you’ve made more money and/or cut costs for your employers
  • How the job you’re interviewing for fits in with your career goals
  • For managers and above: teams you’ve led
  • For managers and above: how you’ve advanced the interests and/or impact of your business unit

Always remember that this is a job interview. You can volunteer a few aspects of your personal life, but I would suggest reading one of my previous articles, Straight talk about illegal interview questions, to help you weigh the pros and cons of doing so.

How to structure your response

You may be a little overwhelmed when looking at the list of bullet points above. This is normal. Let me reassure you that there is a simple way to structure your response that will allow you to include all the points above and more.

Walk the interviewers through your résumé in chronological order.

While your résumé is written in reverse chronological order, meaning that your most recent experience is on the first page, start with the last position you listed and work your way through to today. This will help you to build the story of your career. It will feel natural and effortless because you’re talking about things the way they happened.

Incorporate elements from the list above as you talk about each job. When you talk about your responsibilities, include any projects you’ve worked on, objectives you met or exceeded and initiatives you took or accomplishments you’re proud of.

This mental outline will also help you to pace how much you’re speaking. If you tend to be concise, knowing specifically what to elaborate on can help you to give more thorough answers. If you’re on the chattier side, sticking to the outline will help to keep your story relevant and prevent you from going off on tangents.

As a bonus tip, include the reasons why you left. By taking control over this area and including them as a part of the career story you’re telling, you have a chance to breeze over them. This is especially helpful if one of your reasons for leaving was somewhat questionable. It’s possible that the interviewers may go back and probe on certain areas, but if you told a compelling story and put emphasis on your accomplishments and the value you brought to the companies you worked for, they will be probe for more details on your strengths as opposed to your weaknesses.

It’s normal that you’ll talk for approximately 5-10 minutes when answering this question, based on how long you’ve been in your career and how many companies you’ve worked for. This is a broad question so you aren’t expected to answer it briefly. Take your time, ensure the clarity of your message and emphasize the positive aspects of each job.

Once you’re done answering this question, the rest of the interview should go back to a regular question-and-answer style, like you’d prepared for. With a little luck, you may have touched upon points the interviewer was going to cover anyway, which will definitely put you in a positive light and start the interview off on the right foot.